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Driverless cars can save lives

Jeremy Brown

Emergency physicians are used to seeing victims of vehicle accidents.

Each year, more than 32,000 people in the U.S. die in car accidents, and another 3.9 million are treated in emergency rooms. Physicians, nurses and rehabilitation therapists are on the front lines of handling these injuries, making us obvious advocates for solutions that can prevent these collisions.

Recently, researchers using on-board video cameras reported that driver-related factors — impairment, fatigue, distraction — are now responsible for 90 percent of crashes. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the economic and societal cost of these crashes is $242 billion per year. Almost a third of road fatalities are alcohol-related.

We are rapidly approaching a technological solution where we can save lives before taking people to the hospital. With the widespread deployment of fully driverless cars, all of the deaths caused by speed, alcohol or driver distraction will stop happening. Even a conservative estimate of a 50 percent reduction in crashes would translate into saving about 11,000 lives and $100 billion per year. It’s no wonder, then, that Mothers Against Drunk Driving supports driverless vehicles as a way to stop the thousands of deaths caused every year by drivers under the influence.

And the race is on to get there first — tech and automotive companies are working around the clock to accelerate autonomous vehicle deployment. Google’s efforts to produce a driverless car are well known. Their prototypes have driven over 1.5 million driverless miles, logging only a handful of minor accidents, all but one caused by other human drivers. Daimler’s driverless trucks have driven across the Hoover Dam and along the German Autobahn. Ford has tested its driverless car on a closed road, and late last year, Volvo and Microsoft teamed up to develop a driverless car. Apple’s “Project Titan” is an open secret, and last year, Uber hired experts from Carnegie Mellon’s robotics program to supplement its own efforts in the space.

With such industry titans declaring driverless vehicles the technology of the future, these cars and trucks are well on the way to being ready for public use. Regulatory roadblocks, however, must be overcome before these vehicles hit U.S. roads.

For example, in December 2015, the California Department of Motor Vehicles issued draft regulations that would require the operator of a driverless car to hold a license, automatically disqualifying some people with disabilities. They also require that the operator “be capable of taking over immediate control in the event of an autonomous technology failure or other emergency,” although repeated testing has shown that in these circumstances, sudden human intervention causes more, rather than fewer, accidents.

But even if regulatory obstacles were overcome, some adverse consequences remain. None, however, should prevent us from moving quickly on introducing driverless cars.

One consequence might be a decrease in the number of donated organs available from victims of fatal motor vehicle accidents — currently about 122,000 Americans are on waiting lists for organ transplants, and about 26,000 of those require organs from a deceased individual. Another could be a drop in revenue to hospitals treating the 3.9 million injured victims from car accidents. These declines would be a reasonable societal price to pay for lives saved on the road.

We live in a country in which 80 lives are lost each day in car accidents. Driverless cars have the promise of nearly eliminating motor vehicle accidents entirely.

Dr. Jeremy Brown is director of Emergency Care Research at the National Institutes of Health.